As a beginner in design, the pen tool is definitely the absolute most frustrating thing in the entire world. That might sound slightly hyperbolic, but when you're just learning about Bezier curves and handles and still trying to create something that actually resembles something else, it's true.
However, if you can stick it out and learn why the curves you're creating are curving in what initially seems like an illogical way, you'll be able to do so much more effective design work. Once you've mastered the pen tool, so many more doors will open to you in you software of choice. What might have took you forever to do, could now take just a few click and drags with your mouse.
Since it's so difficult for many to initially grasp, you might ask yourself if it's even worth your time to learn. The answer is a resounding yes. You can use the polygon or lasso tool instead to achieve a lot of the same goals, but the pen tool when used properly is super handy.
The pen tool can be found in four Adobe programs: Illustrator, Photoshop, After Effects, and InDesign. There are some differences between the four programs, but the basic concepts are pretty similar. We're not going to go into the differences between the various softwares in this article. This will be more about general tips for the pen tool.
The pen tool works with paths and not pixels. So when you're creating with the pen tool, you're creating vector objects.
The first thing you should know about the pen tool is that it all revolves around the use of anchor points. Anchor points are a key component to the pen tool. Whether you're creating paths or shapes, the main thing you should be worried about is the anchor points.
When you use the pen tool, every time that you click you're creating an anchor point. The software then will connect the anchor points through lines that it calculates mathematically.
Depending on whether or not you click and drag or simply just click when you create the points the software will know to create a straight or curved line.
You can move the anchors around to adjust your shape with the Direct Selection tool, which is represented with a white arrow.
Path Selection vs. Direct Selection
The path selection and direct selection tools can help you out immensely. Understanding the difference between them is the first step to success.
The Path Selection tool is a black arrow. When you want to move the entire path you've created, you'll use this tool. You'll use this tool to maybe readjust where your path is located on the canvas.
The Direct Selection tool is a white arrow. The Direct Selection tool makes it possible for you to move the anchor points and handles around. The Path Selection tool lets you move the entire thing.
Before you start working with the pen tool, it's a great practice to choose the Direct Selection tool so that when you're in the pen tool all you have to do is hold down Command for Mac or Control for PC to be able to change the location of anchor points. You can also adjust the position of handles if you're using the selection tool.
The reason that you need to choose the Direct Selection tool before the pen tool is that using Control or Command only toggles between the last tool used. So if you've used the move tool right before you use the pen tool, if you toggle you'll end up with the move tool instead.
Setting up this toggle ahead of time isn't a necessity when using the pen tool, but it will be a great help to you.
If you click and just click again, then the pen tool know that you're wanting to create a straight line. A shape with hard corners and sides, like a star or square, would be created by connecting anchor points by simply clicking.
Clicking will create an anchor point without any handles.
If you hold down shift before you click, it'll make it possible for you to add anchor points at right angles. This'll make it easier for you to make straight edges.
Click and Drag
When using the pen tool and you click and drag, that's when you're telling the anchor that you want it to have handles, so that it can make curves. Those curves are often referred to as "Bezier Curves."
We already know that the computer calculates the line that connects two anchor points, so when you're adding handles to the anchor point you're telling the computer to draw the next line toward the handle you've created. If you hold down your Shift key while dragging you'll be able to make the handles on right angles.
The path you're making will always gravitate to the handle. They want to be best friends. If you want to keep them separate, then you'll need to adjust the handle, or convert the anchor point to a corner (more on that later).
While it may seem like adding as many anchor points as possible to create a curve is the way to go, that's false. Using less anchor points is a much better practice. The reason for this is once you have too many points, your shape can start to look jagged since there isn't enough space for the curve to form before it's interrupted. You'll see in the image below how adding more anchor points can make an illustration look weird.
There are a lot of different ideas about the best way to create handles. Some suggest making the handles follow the path as closely as possible so that the path curves almost independently of any dragging. Other suggest to find the outward most part of the curve and add points there with handles at right angles.
The best way to use the pen tool is finding the way that makes the most logical sense to you.
Different Pen Tool Options
All the Adobe softwares that have the Pen tool have at least these four options that are available for you. The first is the Pen tool. The second is the Add Anchor Point tool. You'll utilize this to add an anchor point to a path that you've already created. This is handy if you realize that you underestimated how many anchors you actually needed to get a curve just right. This tool can only be used on a preexisting path.
The next is Delete Anchor Point tool. It's pretty self explanatory. You'll use this tool to click on an anchor you no longer want and it'll delete it.
The Convert Anchor Point tool is useful. You can make a corner point a smooth point by dragging the anchor point out of the corner. You can also change an anchor point with handles to an anchor point without handles, thereby making a corner where it was once smooth.
It's important to close your paths, especially if you'll want to fill them latter. All you need to do is click again on your initial starting anchor point. You'll know that you're closing the path when you have your mouse over the starting point and you see a small open circle near the bottom right corner of the pen cursor.
If you're ready to dive in to learning how to use the Pen tool, then we suggest checking out our Understanding the Pen Tool in Photoshop course. While that specific course focuses on Photoshop, you can still learn a lot about pen tool basics for other softwares from it.